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Comment on JENA MALONE by Ernest schoenmakers

Jena Malone is too modest to mention this, but she has a seriously respectable resume.  You might have seen her alongside Daniel Day Lewis in THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE, or along with Ryan Gosling in UNITED STATES OF LELAND, Kiera Knightly in PRIDE AND PREDJUDICE, Julia Roberts in STEPMOM, Sean Penn in INTO THE WILD, or drop-kicking bad dudes in SUCKER PUNCH. She’s soon to be seen in several more upcoming movies: IN OUR NATURE, TEN CENT PISTOL, and LONELY HUNTER where she plays legendary author Carson McCullers.

Malone also has versatile vocal chops and a remarkable penchant for going against the grain. She’s is one of Hollywood’s most promising young actresses, navigating a variety of indie, art-house, big-budgeters and awards-worthy fare in the years since starting acting at age twelve. Malone specializes in breathing life into likeable things—playing contemporary rebel, virgin, loner, junkie, outcast, warrior, impetuous sinner, and deceitful saint. The common factor being Malone’s unprecedented ability to continually carve out a nonstandard image, marked by an ample amount of diversity and scant amount of compromise. Her moody acting background makes it all the more interesting to consider the popcorn fare currently sitting on her docket: THE HUNGER GAMES. She plays Johanna Mason, the kind of headline-grabbing role guaranteed to attract the attention of the tabloid media, and she finds herself simultaneously ready to embrace and ignore the hype.

By twelve years old, Malone had relocated  to twenty-seven different locations, starred opposite Julia Roberts, and became emancipated from the two mothers who raised her. Somehow she escaped the Hollywood stereotype of child star product turned teenager turned adult whose adolescence seemed brief but torrid. Whereas some child stars might crack simply for spending their youth on camera, Malone has subsequently emerged as a grounded young woman having ably bridged the gap from teenage side player to legit ubiquitous actress.

Malone is small in stature, large in charm, and far from arrogant. The 27-year-old Golden Globe-nominee in front of me has the kind of warming persona that welcomes you to get unabashedly personal with her while remaining journalistically hygienic. In an interview there are three types of things to talk about: the things you can talk about; the things you can’t aptly describe but try to talk about, and the things you actually talk about. But this interview quickly reveals itself to be a step above all that.

Malone is deftly friendly. Maybe it’s her calm candor, the way she’s unafraid to share her inner workings and their attendant idiosyncrasies. Or maybe it’s the way her whip-smart words flow pile out with such ease it’s as if she had all day to mull them over and intelligently choose their line-up.

One thing you need to know about Jena Malone is that’s she’s a force of nature. You don’t interview her as you much as you deliberate and cogitate alongside her. The only thing overarching her still-budding career is one question: is she comparably defiant in real life? If you want to know the answer, we gotcha covered.

Every actor has different methods for this, and it can vary from project to project, but do you usually have a blueprint for the character going in or do you draw from and act in the moment?

JENA MALONE: Blueprint- I’ve never heard anyone talk about it like that. Yeah, I’ve been working for so long, since I was ten years old, so I feel like it’s changed a lot. But the crude strokes are definitely blueprint oriented. You read a script that you love and a character jumps out at you, and you’re never sure why it jumps out at you, but you spend a good amount of time on it. This is where my method comes in. But I don’t use a lot of that on set. A lot of the method is about the research.

I try to build an entire house, complete with things I don’t even think I’ll need. The color of the plumbing underneath the sink. The name of the teacher that [the character] had a crush on when she was in fourth grade. So I really visualize this whole house and what I’ve learned is that the more details, the better. I was doing this when I was younger but I didn’t know what it was, I’ve learned what my process is the older that I get because I’m able to be more self-reflective.

How has your method evolved over the years?

Now that I’ve been meditating, I feel like I’m trying to do something different with acting that I’ve never done. I can really build a whole house. I feel like I’m ready the moment I step out of the trailer for the first time, after wardrobe, hair, and makeup. That’s when I’m ten years old again, spinning in oblivion, spitting it up in the air and just letting it smack on my forehead because I trust that I know where I’m going. It’s weird because I’ve felt like an actor my whole life. Then I got to a point, right after SUCKER PUNCH, when I wanted more. So I started studying acting. Since then, every project I’ve done is so much harder, richer, and fuller. I feel like I had been coasting on my laurels a bit. That can happen when you do anything long enough. It’s like I’ve been a baker for seventeen years and at this point I’m not even making bread anymore. I didn’t know what I was doing. So I had to find something to shake it up for myself, in the way that I had to have a new frame, to do the same thing differently. It’s been really fun.

You’re in a couple films coming out soon. IN OUR NATURE is one of them. What’s the scoop with that?

IN OUR NATURE is a small, character-driven piece. It’s four characters set in one location—about a father and his son and their two lovers coming together for a weekend. Coming apart, coming together, coming undone, and coming back again, that sort of thing. It’s really funny and sweet. Gabrielle Union, John Slattery, and Zach Gilford are the other actors and they’re all great! First time writer/director.

You also appear in an indie flick FOR ELLEN…

Yeah! FOR ELLEN came about because I’m good friends with So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Gray who are these really amazing independent film directiors/producers/writers. They have a really interesting unit which I really respect and admire. They asked me to come in and do this little part, and I literally came to work for two days.

You were in Oregon at the time, studying in an Ecovillage, right?

Yeah! After SUCKER PUNCH I just felt like I needed to go build houses, that I was so strong in my body that I needed to put it to use. I was going to go to Africa and I was going to join the Peace Corps but all these things fell through. I was online studying and had been thinking of permaculture a lot because I had owned a home in Tahoe, and I wanted to still own a home but live in this world the way I wanted to, leaving such a lighter footprint. So I said, “Okay, I’m going to go there and take a six-week course at Lost Valley.” It’s kind of an independent thinking actors’ retreat. It’s kind of funny, you stay in bunk beds, it’s nothing fancy.

What are you going to do with that knowledge?

What’s interesting is that permaculture is basically a theory on systems thinking. Permaculture can be very house-centric but it can also be a systems thing in the sense of sustainability, so you can apply that to anything. You can apply it to a business model or a creative thinking model. You can apply it to the way you do dishes. Basically you start with the energy you have—find energy, harvest it, use it, sustain it.

When I was younger I was wondering, how do I get myself to be angry?  I had luxurious ideas. I would think about the character, then I would think about real things, think about this and think about that and then one day I would eventually get to the anger. But what I’ve learned through permaculture is that it is more about if you are physically understanding what anger is, you’ll be angry. Your emotions will find it. You have to physically put yourself in the stance of anger. That’s first and foremost. And I would always leave the body behind. But you have to start with the body, it’s the energy source. That’s where it holds. That’s where you create anger. If you can bypass the emotional thought pattern because there’s no economy in emotion, then you can go straight to the economical energy source, which is your body. You manipulate it by saying, “When I am angry, how do I percieve myself? Is there cold running up my back? Do I sweat?” You bring yourself physically to that state and everything else falls into itself. I had been thinking about it all wrong.

Did you use this technique when filming the darker scenes in THE WAIT?

No, I tried but I got so disassociated. The emotions were so hardcore on me in that film, to be honest I don’t remember shooting it. I remember getting there and a few key moments but I don’t remember shooting it.


Yeah, my best friend [M. Blash] wrote it and directed it. We are very close and we’ve worked together before and I really trusted him. But I feel like I just went off my rocker a bit, it was strange, sort of like when you do guided meditation, you’re just a body on the floor and this person is talking and then you’re like, “Oh my god, they just led me into a dragon’s cave!” I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It could be the worst preformance in the world because I don’t feel like I was in control of it.

Have you seen it yet?

I’ve seen pieces. It’s good, very good, but it’s just hard for me to know. Some things are really weird like that. I feel like it’s hard to judge it or that I don’t want to judge it.

I know what you mean, there are some things that just flow out like a stream of conciousness.

That’s what I’m trying to get to. I would rather live in that stream of conciousness as an actor instead of this sort of forced will of a physicality, but you’re not always one hundred percent there. So you have to kind of live in between the stream and the physical body, instead of the stream and the manipulation of the mind. Because that’s where I lived before and I feel like it lead me down repetative allies of destitution. I watch things that I did when I was younger and it’s so obvious, no one told me or asked me to go deeper. No one was asking me to try to put this in my body. All of my acting was right here, like I’m a four-inch tall actor, it’s like I’m the smallest person in the world. It’s not their fault, it’s no ones fault, just a learning curve.

You’ve pretty much balanced working on both substantial indie movies and other big-budgeters like SUCKER PUNCH. Was managing both of those worlds a conscious career path or do you just do what parts grab you?

Well, it’s conscious because you do what parts grab you. It’s also concious because there are really so many parts in independent films that grab me, but you can’t do them all. There are a lot of things in television that grab me too, but I’ve never been that interested. It’s weird when you’ve been doing this for seventeen years. If I had only been doing one thing for seventeen years we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Congrats on THE HUNGER GAMES, by the way.

Thank you! Can’t comment on it yet, but I’m allowed to say how excited I am to be working on it. It’s a fucking dream! My little sister recommended I read it like two years ago and now she is dying.

I can imagine! Can you talk about LONELY HUNTER?

Yes a little bit. It’s going to be intense and it’s coming right up after THE HUNGER GAMES. Literally I couldn’t be an architect of anything greater. The fact that I get to be even the slightest of a puppeteer in that. I mean, I’m like on my knees thanking God’s green heavens everyday. Literally I call Deborah [Kampmeier, the writer/director] asking, “Why did you pick me? I can’t do this!” But [author Carson McCullers’] life was really immense.

Do you feel burdened by the expectations?

No there is no burden, and I don’t feel any expectations. There’s no video footage of her, theres no documentation, you know? People don’t have expectations. I think what it is is that I’ve been used to doing like high school level research and this requires a masters degree. It’s based on Virginia Spencer Carr’s biography of Carson McCullers. It’s one of the most in depth biographies about her short life. It’s going to be amazing!

Let’s segway into something different and talk about music. I saw your band at the Viper Room back in 2007. Then I didn’t hear anything about your band for a some time. Did you put it on the backburner and are there were plans in the future for more music?

I put that band together in New York trying to bring together the very intimate songs I had created myself in my studio in Tahoe. I’m definitely a novice musician in a kind of an oddly proud way. The band was amazing, they were amazing musicians. But I wasn’t really happy with the interpretation that had been created. It was very much a band. The songs are very much me.

Would you ever want to contribute one of your songs to a film?

Oh yeah for sure! I’d love to license some songs. I’ve been working on this new concept called “video music.” So I’m trying to hustle up some road-trip money to do it. We’ll see what happens.

Having been a child actress who’s managed to lead a pretty normal life among the oddity of celebrity, how to you balance the normalcy within the parameters of fame?

It’s like asking a native how he survives, how he is not susceptible to a modern society. He doesn’t know any different. The idea of fame is more of a construct than a reality. I don’t know, the only metaphor I can give you is high school. Everyone is going to be having weird shit happen or not happen, and I just happen to have a good head on my shoulders. I tried a bunch of things when I was younger, none of them really worked for my appetite. I never really had an inkling to go wild you know, in front of a camera. I feel like what’s so different about some of these women growing up in Hollywood today.

You seemed very self-sufficient early on…

Yeah, I feel like I was as wild as I wanted to be. I was just lucky not to have the caliber of fame that chronicles every single step. I moved back up to Tahoe when I was eighteen and took a year off and went to school up there and didn’t live in LA. I just moved back to LA three years ago. So I lived in Tahoe from eighteen to twenty four.

In an old interview you said that you got the place outside of LA to be in an environment that encouraged your creativity. To be around something that actually aids your creativity rather than all the distractions and elements of this town that sort of squash your creativity.

Totally, but I also feel like that is a very naive point of view. It’s an important point of view because I was young and it was the only point of view I understood. Where as I feel like the older you get, you don’t need to go on vacation, you can close your eyes and you’re there, through the power of your mind and through your own ability to understand the world around you instead of having these expectations of what should be, you just know what is. I left LA because I didn’t want to become the women I saw around me. So I moved to Tahoe to basically allow myself to become myself without the influence of all the other shit around me because I could already kind of feel the people’s influence on me. Then I got to a point where I just got fucking bored up there. I loved it and it allowed me to create my own voice and my own self and my own woman but then I got to a point where I wanted to collaborate. I wanted to creatively have other people around me that are doing what I do and are excited to share!

What were the things you kept with you when you moved back here that help you become the woman you wanted to be?

It’s the rituals and routines that make up who you are, not the way you experience things. Not how you experience happiness because that can be different every time, and not how you experience pain because that can be different every single time. So what Tahoe gave me was space to create my own rituals. But it was a crazy time to leave, because it was when I’d done the biggest films I had ever done: SAVED! and DONNIE DARKO. It was not the time to be leaving Hollywood. I totally could have been whoever I wanted at that point if I really chased it, but it just didn’t make sense to me.

Did you know you’d find your way back to it?

No, I didn’t know.

Would you have been willing to just quit the whole thing at that point?

Well no, I guess I knew that I wanted to do it. But I didn’t know if it was going to want me, because it’s such a fickle lover. You have to be a constant gardener and I was not. I had a black thumb, I’m still learning.

Nowadays some girls are instant celebrities, whether they deserve it or not, because they played the “Hollywood” game.

Seriously, you get one film, you hire a publicist and a stylist, all of that, and instantly you look like a celebrity. Where is your voice? Where is your point of view? That’s what made Julia Roberts so interesting when she was younger. And people like Madonna. That’s what makes Meryl Streep interesting every single time she walks out the door. She has a point of view. These other women buy their point of view from stylists or fashion people or agents. But they make far more money than I do. They are getting job offers that I could only dream of. There are some aspects where I wish someone would have just told me when I was a hot-headed 17-year-old, I could have just played the game a little straighter and I would have been able to have more doors open now.

Well, THE HUNGER GAMES, c’mon, that’s a pretty big coup.

That’s the funny thing, the only reason I got this is because I blew them out of the water in the audition. It wasn’t because I played the game right and wore the sexy skirt, it was because I went in there and really auditioned and they actually had a casting director that wanted to cast real actors. That is not always the case.

Especially in such a large franchise.

Right, I often see a lot of the younger actors who are like, “What should I do?” Honestly, it’s hard either way. It’s hard to be yourself and it’s hard not to be yourself. Both have a means of making you feel insecure and not sturdy in your job. It’s such a delicate thing. You’ve got to play the game a little bit. Even that’s a stylistic choice, even that’s a persona. It’s all a guise, a dream within a dream, so what’s really the truth of it? It’s far deeper inside, not on the outside. I think that’s what I am learning now. How to appreciate the material aspects that basically form that language of Hollywood without depreciating my internal aspects. 




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